Here’s a trend to watch: Innovation, made in Russia

The first trip to the Silicon Valley often has a profound impact on foreign entrepreneurs. But for 13 Russian startups currently touring the region, visiting the Valley isn’t just about changing their own point of view; it’s about changing their country.

Skolkovo, just outside of Moscow, wants to become Russia's Silicon Valley.

The startups, all part of the state-sponsored Skolkovo IT Cluster, are accompanied by a reality TV crew that documents their every move.

The idea is to encourage young Russians to take risks, pursue IT opportunities, and maybe adopt a little bit of Silicon Valley culture in the process. Like the idea that failing with a startup doesn’t mean you need to change careers. IT Cluster Deputy Director for Education and Research Katia Gaika told me that Silicon Valley’s embrace of failing is very foreign to people in Russia. “Failure is not acceptable,” she said.

Skolkovo IT Cluster was founded last year as part of a larger initiative to turn Moscow’s Skolkovo suburb into a kind of Russian Silicon Valley. The plan was initiated by Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, and the Skolkovo foundation has since won financial and logistical backing from pretty much every U.S. tech heavyweight. Cisco (s CSCO) alone has committed to invest $1 billion over 10 years in the region. Part of that money is now used to jumpstart Russian startups. “In order to change things, you have to start doing things,” Gaika told me.

Three Russian startups you need to know

So what kind of things are Russian startup founders doing these days? Definitely things we should pay attention to. The 13 companies taking part in the trip are going to demo their products on Wednesday, Oct. 12 as part of a showcase, but I got to meet three of them earlier this week. I have to say I was impressed.

One of the founders I met was Ilya Gelfenbeyn, whose startup Speaktoit has launched a virtual assistant on Android (s goog) that looks a bit like Apple’s (s aapl) just-launched Siri, albeit with a friendlier avatar.

Speaktoit is using a cloud-based service to process voice input, translate it into more formalized search queries for external web services and send the resulting data to the end user as part of a conversation with the app’s avatar.

Gelfenbeyn told me his company has seen the downloads of its Android app triple ever since Apple announced Siri, and that it hopes to have an iOS app out in two weeks. Check out the video embedded below for a demonstration of Speaktoit and more information about the company:


Alexey Khitrov from STC Innovations demonstrated how you can use the webcam that’s standard on every laptop and many mobile devices for advanced biometric security. What if, he asked me, your cloud-based email wasn’t secured by a simple password, but by a biometric ID check that could be launched right within the browser? Khitrov’s startup has been founded out of STC, a Russian speech recognition specialist with 20 years of experience and an R&D team of 150. Khitrov now wants to use the inherited knowledge to build his own biometrics empire. “We want to build the company to be a force to be reckoned with,” he told me.

FilmLanguage turns plain text into 3-D animation.

The last pitch I got was from Bazelevs Innovation, and it was also the most original idea: Bazelevs has built a technology called FilmLanguage that can turn text input into 3-D animation. It was initially built to visualize ideas during the production process of a movie, but the company quickly realized this could be used in a whole range of settings.

What if you sent someone a text message, and the recipient’s phone would turn it into a small animated clip? Or how about helping lawyers and insurances visualize accidents based on witness reports? Bazelevs Innovations Business Development VP Sergei V. Kuzmin told me the company is especially targeting the U.S. for this kind of forensics visualization. “We don’t have the liability industry,” he joked.

Building on Russia’s advantages

Other startups taking part in the roadshow have come up with solutions for image tagging, 3-D cloud rendering, clustered web search, and more. Most of them have been doing significant technology development, which IT Cluster Executive Director Alexander Turkot characterized as a key part of the initiative. Turkot said the goal isn’t to simply copy U.S. innovations, or build yet another social network. “We try to utilize Russia’s advantages,” he told me, arguing that the country’s strong education and research foundation can help local startup founders compete internationally.

Of course, some simply choose to leave and seek their fortunes in the Valley instead. “Brain drain is kind of unavoidable,” Turkot admitted, but added: “We believe in brain circulation.” Build a better foundation for innovation, and some of those expats may just come back, he argued. Skolkovo is part of that plan, and the roadshow was also to signal that Russia is getting serious about innovation. Said Gaika: “These are our ambassadors.”